MI6 chief Richard Moore said that China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism make up the “big four” security issues facing Britain’s spies. IT industry sources say China may increasingly look to steal sensitive, encrypted data in hopes of decrypting it with quantum computing technology in the years ahead.
Moore said China is the intelligence agency’s “single greatest priority” as the Beijing leadership increasingly backs “bold and decisive action” to further its interests. Calling China “an authoritarian state with different values than ours,” he said Beijing conducts “large-scale espionage operations” against the U.K. and its allies, tries to “distort public discourse and political decision-making” and exports technology that enables a “web of authoritarian control” around the world.
Researchers at IT consultancy firm Booze Allen say Chinese threat actors may target government, private sector and academic data with long-term value, including trade secrets, biometric identification markers, criminal records, weapon designs, and research and development around pharmaceuticals, biology, materials science, and chemistry, among other areas.
Booz Allen Hamilton say quantum computing’s benefits are largely far off but rapid advancement and a Chinese political realignment focusing on next-generation technologies make the threat active, with highly sensitive data held by state actors potentially decrypted by the end of the decade. Quantum computing differs from classical computing in that it centres on quantum theory – and the ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at a time – with related devices offering immense data analysis and simulation capabilities.
The Booz Allen Hamilton researchers note that since approximately 2016, China has emerged as a major quantum-computing research and development center, backed by substantial policy support at the highest levels of its government. Still, the country’s quantum experts have suggested that they remain behind the U.S. in several quantum categories – though China hopes to surpass the U.S. by the mid-2020s. While experts say this is unlikely, China may surpass Western nations in early use cases, the report states.
Advancements in quantum simulations, the researchers contend, may expedite the discovery of new drugs, high-performance materials and fertilizers, among other key products. These are areas that align with the country’s strategic economic plan, which historically parallels its economic espionage efforts.
Booze Allen say: “In the 2020s, Chinese economic espionage will likely increasingly steal data that could be used to feed quantum simulations,” researchers say, though they claim it is unlikely that Chinese computer scientists will be able to break current-generation encryption before 2030. “Still, the outsized threat of a rival state possessing the ability to rapidly decrypt any data using current public-key encryption generates high risk.”